Written by Shane McAnally, Rodney Clawson, and Luke Laird
Performed by Kenny Chesney
Videos by American Songwriter
Shane McAnally—the renowned songwriter who’s penned hits for Luke Bryan, Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt, and more—likes to go into writing sessions with two things: an idea and something to drink.
“I feel like I can’t write without a big, 44 ounce, gas station iced tea,” he said with a laugh. “And I always like to come in with something prepared so we’re not just sitting in silence. It doesn’t mean we’re gonna write that idea that day, but it breaks the ice. I can throw an idea out there and get the ball rolling.”
But when he was showing up to a writing session back in the early 2010s with Rodney Clawson and Luke Laird, none of McAnally’s ideas were working, and the metaphorical “ball” was sitting entirely still. Frustrated, he took out his phone and started going through his notes, eventually reaching a list of potential song titles he had written down.
“I was going through all of these titles that I thought sounded like good songs—stuff like ‘Doublewide Quick Stop’ and ‘Midnight T-Top’ and ‘Baptist Church Parking Lot,’” McAnally said. “I thought those all sounded like kinda fun, quirky songs, but that day, none of them were hitting us… until we thought, ‘Wait, what if instead of titles, we listed all of those things for the lyrics?’”
From there, inspiration finally started to flow. “Every image that was coming out just totally captured the idea of being a kid in the ’80s,” McAnally continued. “It sounded exactly like small town, American life.”
We were Jesus save me, blue jean baby
Born in the USA
Trailer park truck stop, faded little map dots
New York to LA
We were teenage dreamin’, front seat leanin’
Baby, come give me a kiss
Put me on the cover of the Rollin’ Stone
Uptown down home American kids
That idea alone ignited excited energy in the writer’s room, but things kicked into high gear when they finally got to writing the lyrics for the chorus. “I remember we wrote the line A little messed up/ but we’re all alright, and we were like, ‘Okay, we have the line!’” McAnally recalled. “The song needed that. Then we came up with a title—‘American Kids’—but that didn’t mean anything without that chorus line buttoning everything up, which I love.”
“After we wrote it, we sent the song around—we even sent it to Kenny… but he never opened the email!” McAnally said. “In the interim, Little Big Town heard it and started working on it.”
At that point, it seemed like the story was going to be fairly straightforward. But eventually, Chesney got around to checking his email, which led to some classic Nashville maneuvering.
“I was on a flight with Kenny when he was making Big Revival and he said to me, ‘I just don’t have the cornerstone single for this album yet,’” McAnally said. “As we sat down, he started digging through his emails and turned to me saying, ‘Here’s a song you sent me, Shane, that I never listened to.’ It was ‘American Kids.’”
McAnally knew that Little Big Town had dibs to the tune, but couldn’t bring himself to say anything. “It’s Kenny Chesney,” he said. “He was one of the first artists to take a chance on my songs, which was a huge part of my success. And as luck would have it, before he even finished listening to the song, he was turning to me saying ‘This is it! This is the song!’ By the time we landed, though, I was freaking out, so I told him that it was on hold.”
But that didn’t deter Chesney for one moment. “It really came down to his enthusiasm about the song,” McAnally explained. “He was saying, ‘I really feel like this is going to be the cornerstone of my record.’ Little Big Town couldn’t say that. So, they graciously let him have it.”
When it eventually came out, “American Kids” grew to be Chesney’s biggest hit to date. It rose to No. 1 on the charts, racked up millions of streams, and has become an enduring part of the soundtrack of an American upbringing.
“That song just has so many snapshots,” McAnally said. “Things like Sister’s got a boyfriend daddy doesn’t like / Now he’s sittin’ out back, 30/30 in his lap / In the blue bug zapper light—that can seem kinda surface-level, but people know that guy. If it’s not your dad, it’s someone’s dad down the road. That’s what makes that song work for me. I still love it. When it comes on the radio, I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever gotten recorded.”
And if you’re worried about Little Big Town missing out on the fun, don’t be—they were pretty satisfied with how things turned out too.
“It was funny because the song that ultimately became the cornerstone for their record in lieu of this one was ‘Girl Crush,’” McAnally said. “We joke about that all the time—‘American Kids’ was nominated for Song of the Year at the CMAs, the ACM Awards, and the Grammys, but all three went to ‘Girl Crush.’ So, let’s be honest, it kinda worked out best for everyone!”